Sense: the system of paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships between a lexical unit and other lexical units in a language

I looked up the technical terms; then the technical terms used to define those terms; ultimately, I didn't learn what I needed to learn to comprehend the preceding definition. In layman's terms, what does it mean?

  • I would say linguistic gibberish of the first water, meaning nothing but all the grammatical information that show how words belong together.
    – rogermue
    May 3, 2014 at 17:27
  • Paradigmatic relationships means how the 'lexical unit' (word, more or less) compares and contrasts semantically with other words which may be used in the same context; syntagmatic relationships means the various syntactic roles the word can play in well-formed utterances. May 3, 2014 at 17:55
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    Paradigmatic and syntagmatic are both terms for different kinds of grammar: morphology and syntax. Lexical unit just means either a word or a phrase or a construction that acts like a single word, like kick the bucket, which means 'die' and is an intransitive verb like die. So "the system of P and S relationships between a LU and all the other LUs" is perfectly understandable; it means all the grammar that applies to a word (LU). Like the facts that the verb like is regular (liked), and that it requires a sentient subject NP, and that it can take either gerund or infinitive complement.
    – jlawler
    May 3, 2014 at 23:12
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    But I'd call that "Grammar", not "Sense". "Sense" is a semantic term, like the epistemic versus deontic senses of all modals: This must be the place vs She must be home by 12. So this is an odd definition; and by the way, it's not a sentence -- no verb.
    – jlawler
    May 3, 2014 at 23:14
  • @jlawler I agree, it doesn't look like a correct definition of 'sense' as I know it in linguistics. Where does this 'definition' come from? May 4, 2014 at 0:46

1 Answer 1


It's important to provide the full context in these cases.

I found it on http://www.hiphoparchive.org/hiphop-lx/higher-learning

Meaning - a notion in semantics classically defined as having two components: Reference, anything in the referential realm denoted by a word or expression, and Sense, the system of paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships between a lexical unit and other lexical units in a language.

The term 'sense' is used in at least 2 (related but distinct) ways in linguistics. One in lexicography, it's simply used to refer to one of the 'meanings' listed under a lexical items.

The second comes from the Fregean tradition of distinguishing between reference (the thing the word denotes, refers to, points to) and sense (what makes the reference meaningful in the context of a proposition - I'm being very liberal here).

One synonym for sense is connotation. And from this perspective, the definition makes sense. Connotation can be thought of as a result of comparison to similar words (paradigmatic relationships) and contexts of use (syntagmatic relationships).

Of course, nobody reading the definition without the headword would guess that that's what it was referring to. In the structuralist tradition that would simply be a definition of grammar (as @jlawler points out).

  • I wondered whether they were going for Ferge's definition of sense. Although, JLawler's explication of the foregoing definition doesn't seem to correspond with Ferge's conception of sense. Doesn't Ferge's sense mean 'the expression that refers to the referent'? For example, the sense of Batman differs from the sense of Bruce Wayne, but both names refer to the same referent. Likewise, the sense of The Grand Canyon differs from the sense of The biggest ditch in America, but both phrases refer to the same referent. The differences don't seem entirely grammatical.
    – Hal
    May 4, 2014 at 17:13
  • Sorry, I think I wasn't clear. Sense is pretty much as you describe. What I meant by the references to grammar was that if I heard someone talk about "a system of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships" I would think they are talking about "grammar" not "sense". Not that it was a grammatical difference. May 4, 2014 at 17:37

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